Apart from iron ore, the Northern Cape is rich in new-tech minerals such as zinc, nickel, lead, copper and cobalt. Picture: Bloomberg/Waldo Swiegers
Apart from iron ore, the Northern Cape is rich in new-tech minerals such as zinc, nickel, lead, copper and cobalt. Picture: Bloomberg/Waldo Swiegers

The dusty, sparsely populated Northern Cape may seem far removed from the notion of the fourth industrial revolution and the rapid technological advances that characterise it.

But the province, possibly more than any other in SA, has the potential for a mining boom in new-tech minerals: zinc, nickel, lead, copper and cobalt. These are key elements in the manufacture of smartphones, electric vehicles and renewable power systems.

And with healthy prices and a good outlook for base metals, and other minerals key to new technologies, a few companies are looking to revive and even expand the Northern Cape’s proven resources. These include smaller players like Orion Minerals (listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and the JSE) and Daphne Mashile-Nkosi’s Kalahari Resources, as well as big names like Kumba Iron Ore.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The region is better known as the source of 95% of SA’s diamond output and, in more recent history, has emerged as a major producer of high-quality iron ore and manganese, as it holds 80% of the planet’s resources.

At Okiep, the oldest mining town in SA, a number of operators are working on projects that could revive production.

And Orion Minerals is developing a flagship zinc copper project at Copperton, an Anglovaal mine that produced 1Mt of zinc and 430,000t of copper before it closed in 1991.

On Monday, Orion announced to the market that a bankable feasibility study had been completed and confirmed the company’s expectations of a long life and high margin — and payback within as little as three years.

The R4bn project will be established on Copperton’s footprint and will tap into one of the world’s most significant volcanogenic massive sulphide deposits, a rich source of metals including copper, lead, and zinc.

Orion CEO Errol Smart says there is ample scope to extend the deposit and huge potential for additional satellite discoveries in the near-mine environment and the broader region.

The company has a large tenement portfolio within the geologically rich Areachap Belt of the Northern Cape which, despite many mineral discoveries between 1970 and 1998, has seen no major exploration for 20 to 30 years.

Resource consultant John Bristow says the activity in the Northern Cape is really just consolidating, churning and recycling of old assets.

Gerhard Meintjes, a geologist and the original owner of the Jacomynspan project — a nickel, copper, cobalt, and platinum group metals project which now forms part of Orion Minerals’ joint venture portfolio — says: "It is amazing how little is really new; it’s a case of looking at it with new eyes. Metallurgical processes have changed drastically. Old prospects might have been drilled but were potentially not economic to mine at the time. Now, with a better understanding of geological processes, something can be viable when it wasn’t 30 years ago."

Copper put the region on the map in 1685 when Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Cape Colony, led an expedition north in search of fabled resources. He found copper in the mountains of Namaqualand, just outside what is now Springbok, but logistics thwarted any profitable production at the time. Production began there in earnest 150 years later, and then at the nearby Okiep copper mines. Over the years, copper has been mined profitably in the region and there was a fair amount of exploration. Activity dissipated in the 1980s when base metal prices remained depressed.

At Black Mountain Mining, northeast of Springbok, Anglo American began copper, lead and zinc production in 1998. It sold the operations to Vedanta Resources in 2011.

Now Vedanta has invested $400m to complete phase one of its Gamsberg mine, which will exploit one of the largest known undeveloped zinc ore bodies in the world.

Despite the rising cost and unreliability of power in SA, developing a zinc smelter is also under consideration.

Bristow says nearly every single known deposit out there was discovered by prospectors and farmers, and there hasn’t been modern exploration since then. "Nowhere in SA have we really utilised the range of modern hi-tech exploration tools to unlock our exceptional treasure trove of mineral deposits," he says.

Meintjies says the geology of the Namaqua Mobile Belt features younger rocks and differs markedly from the geology where the rest of SA’s mining operations are concentrated. "It’s different … and it’s largely base metals that have been found there." The chances of finding something new are higher in the Northern Cape than elsewhere in SA, where mineral deposits have been well exploited, he says.

"I think the Northern Cape might still deliver a few surprises."

* This article was amended to reflect the fact that Black Mountain was acquired by Anglo American in 1998, not 1980.